Transfusion Therapy

Written by Ann Pietrangelo
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 18, 2013

Transfusion Therapy Overview

A blood transfusion is when you receive blood via an intravenous (IV) line. Blood transfusions are sometimes necessary after an injury or surgery causes a high amount of blood loss. Some people need regular transfusions due to medical conditions such as hemophilia or cancer. This is called transfusion therapy. In some cases, a permanent IV can be put in place. 

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), about five million Americans need a blood transfusion each year (NHLBI, 2012).

Prior to any blood transfusion, laboratory tests must ensure that donor blood is compatible with the patient’s. Transfusion therapy can take place in a hospital or outpatient transfusion center. 

Donated blood is thoroughly screened for infectious agents and other factors that may put you at risk. Although serious complications can happen, the procedure is considered safe.

Who Needs Transfusion Therapy?

Sometimes, illness can make it difficult for your body to produce healthy blood. Some conditions that may require transfusion therapy include:

  • anemia
  • cancer
  • hemophilia
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • severe infection
  • sickle cell disease
  • thrombocytopenia

Preparing for Transfusion Therapy

Serious complications can occur if donor and patient blood are not compatible. You’ll need a simple blood draw, after which the sample will be sent for laboratory testing.

Tell your doctor if you take dietary supplements containing iron. You may be asked to sign papers consenting to transfusion therapy. If possible, ask questions prior to the day of the procedure.


Transfusion therapy can take place in a hospital or an outpatient center. If you don’t have a permanent IV, a line will be inserted into one of your blood vessels. Your provider will confirm your identity and cross-check the blood you are about to receive. 

You may receive a mild medication to reduce side effects. Your vital signs will be checked and monitored. Generally, you will be free to move around during the transfusion, as long as you are careful not to disturb the IV. Blood will flow from a bag into the line for one to four hours.

Most people are able to resume normal activities soon after the procedure. Ask your doctor for aftercare instructions specific to your condition.

Risks and Side Effects

It is extremely important that compatible blood is used. If not, your immune system will attack the donor blood. This can be a life-threatening event.

Although there is some risk, strict precautionary measures decrease the risk of transmitting infection or disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transmitting infection through blood transfusion is rare in the U.S. (CDC, 2013).

Transfusion Reaction

Some people have a transfusion reaction following the procedure. Symptoms are generally mild and may include:

  • back, chest, or muscle pain
  • chills
  • coughing, wheezing
  • fever
  • headache
  • hives
  • itching, rash
  • swelling

Delayed transfusion reaction is when side effects occur days or even weeks later. Sometimes, this includes dark-colored urine. Be sure to report side effects to your doctor immediately. Medication taken prior to a transfusion can cut down on side effects.

Iron Overload

Ongoing transfusion therapy can cause iron overload in some patients. Excess iron is stored in the liver, pancreas, endocrine glands, and heart, and can damage vital organs. Careful monitoring can tell your doctor if your body is storing too much iron. Prescriptions medications called chelations can help your body get rid of iron.

Blood Types

We have different blood types according to the antigens in our blood cells. There are four main blood groups: O, A, B, and AB.

We also have a substance called “Rh factor” in our red blood cells. Those who have it are “Rh positive;” those who don’t are “Rh negative.” This is why your blood type is referred to as, “O positive,” or “B negative.”

The antigens plus the Rh factor make up eight blood types. What blood type you can receive depends on whether you need plasma, red blood cells, or whole blood.

Even though we don’t all have the same blood type, our blood is made up of the same components.

Components of Blood

Blood is made up of solid and liquid parts. The solid part contains red and white blood cells and platelets. Red blood cells transport oxygen. White blood cells help fight infection. Platelets help your blood clot.

The liquid part is called plasma. It contains water, proteins, and salts.

You may only need certain parts of blood. For example, people with sickle cell disease may only need red blood cells. Someone with leukemia may require platelets transfusions.

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